HIS EXCELLENCY: GEORGE WASHINGTON
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf -- 320pp -- $26.95
The irony cannot have escaped Joseph Ellis: The historian who famously lied about his own past would investigate a man who, according to one legend, was incapable of telling a lie, George Washington. Ellis once told students, falsely, that he had been a star athlete, civil-rights activist, and Vietnam vet. Now he would strip away Washington's mythology and give readers an unvarnished look at the hero of the war that enabled the U.S. to be born.
The result, His Excellency: George Washington, is a skillfully wrought volume that overcomes the general's aloofness and saintly status to get at the inner control freak and tortured moralist. Ellis boldly probes -- and speculates about -- such matters as Washington's formative experiences, romantic life, sources of wealth, and evolving repugnance toward slavery. But is Ellis' effort altogether valid history -- or in part a fiction as imaginary as his tall tales about himself?
His Excellency homes in on hidden facets of Washington's personality -- an area not accessible via the usual documentary evidence. The book does not attempt an exhaustive detailing of the great man's experiences or much discussion of the society in which he lived. In this, it resembles such previous Ellis works as American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000).
The author argues that the French and Indian War of 1754-63 helped shape several of Washington's basic convictions. He was along for General Edward Braddock's disastrous assault on the French garrison at Fort Duquesne, during which the Americans and Brits suffered 900 casualties, including Braddock, out of a total of 1,300 men. Colonel Washington lived to organize the retreat -- and learned the value of simply surviving. Yet he bristled at British officers treating American troops as inferiors and paying them less than British regulars. Ellis' portrait of Washington as increasingly self-confident and resentful is persuasive until the author dons his shrink's hat and starts speculating. In Washington's hunger to command and his discomfort with any subordinate role, Ellis sees "bottomless ambition and the near obsession with self-control."
Washington's anger toward Britain escalated with his later experience as a plantation owner in thrall to a London mercantile house, says the author. By the 1760s, Washington had arrived in the top tier of Virginia's planter class. In addition to Mount Vernon and the considerable property he had inherited from his own family, Washington amassed an additional 18,000 acres of plantation land and hundreds of slaves through his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. But he soon began feeling that he had landed in a debt trap. Year after year the market for his chief crop, tobacco, seemed to worsen. Meanwhile, the prices for European goods seemed to soar. Washington complained bitterly, finally deciding that he had become dependent "on invisible men in faraway places for virtually his entire way of life," in Ellis' words. This, too, is compelling stuff, but the author can't leave well enough alone, adding that "if the core economic problem was tobacco, the key psychological problem was control, the highest emotional priority for Washington."
Ellis' 50-odd-page account of the Revolutionary War is engrossing. Like other historians, he concedes Washington's limitations as a military leader yet suggests that only his imposing presence held the Continental Army together. Ellis also takes us through Washington's short-lived retirement from public life, the convention that forged a federal Constitution, and his two terms as President, during which he largely "managed to levitate above the political landscape."
More interesting -- and more telling about the Ellis method -- is an account of the arrangements Washington made for the freeing of his slaves after his death. Here Ellis offers an epiphany for which he seems to have little evidence: Slavery, the historian announces, had "haunted him in those last years," being "the one problem that he cared about most." How does Ellis know this? Partly because Washington avoided the subject in his letters and because he confessed to a friend "that I do not like to think, much less talk about it." Aha!
The temptation to draw such doubtful conclusions -- or describe the past as it might have been -- is strong for all observers of history, notes University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer in another new book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud -- American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. "Historians must be fabricators of a sort," Hoffer says, telling "stories about things they could not possibly know of their own experience." In his efforts to understand the Founding Fathers' motivations, Ellis takes this a step further than most, says Hoffer: He becomes "a conjurer" able to see what's lost due to "the vagaries of missing documentation." Hoffer even goes so far as to suggest that it is Ellis' "power to invent truth" -- much as he invented experiences for himself -- that give his books their unusual force. It's not an approach Hoffer or the other historians he cites recommend, however.
So yes, His Excellency is at times insightful and even tasty -- but some of it may be best taken with a grain of salt.
By Hardy Green